Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve | Travel (51, 52/556)

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve | Travel (51, 52/556) | Alaina Ann Photography My first visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was in 2013. Click here for my list of favorite hikes and spots to enjoy.

Unreal is the best word I have to describe these sand dunes and surrounding mountains. Even though this was a repeat visit, the view still seemed pretend.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve | Travel (51, 52/556) | Alaina Ann Photography

A fun bonus - this visit covered two of my 556 in 12 locations. The national park and preserve are listed as two separate national park units.

Since my favorites have already been shared, I will instead share a few photographs from my most recent visit. You can hardly tell I was being pelted by sand while capturing them ;)

As always, feel free to share your favorite hikes and places to explore in the comments below!

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve | Travel (51, 52/556) | Alaina Ann Photography

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve | Travel (51, 52/556) | Alaina Ann Photography

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve | Travel (51, 52/556) | Alaina Ann Photography

Rio Grande National Forest | Travel (50/556)

Rio Grande National Forest | Travel (50/556) | Alaina Ann Photography (iPhone 4s) This was my second time driving through Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado. The first was during late spring and I ran into snow while in Wolf Creek Pass. Driving through the same region two years later pulled on my heart strings a bit, taking in wildfire devastation for the first time. Still beautiful, as you might expect, just a bit different than I remembered.

Favorite Hikes + Places to Explore
  • Continental Divide Trail - the full trail is over 45 miles long. Popping on for a quick turn around hike is always a beautiful option, especially during fall.
  • Silverthread Scenic Byway - State Hwy 149 offers great overlooks throughout the forest, with a few interpretive stops along the way.
  • The Colorado Trail - 14.8 miles of the trail falls in the forest, between San Luis Pass and Spring Creek Pass.
  • US 160 - love this drive through Wolf Creek Pass. Expect snow!
  • Zapata Falls - a 2.5 mile moderate loop trail to the Zapata Falls.

What are some of your favorite spots in the Rio Grande National Forest?

Mesa Verde National Park | Travel (49/556)

Mesa Verde National Park | Travel (49/556) | Alaina Ann Photography (iPhone 4s) While visiting familiar places, I sometimes have a habit of keeping my camera tucked away. This is what happened during my most recent trip to Mesa Verde National Park, aside from a few iPhone captures.

Mesa Verde National Park | Travel (49/556) | Alaina Ann Photography (iPhone 4s)

I have had the pleasure of driving the scenic entrance road six times, always wearing a huge smile. Each visit offers quiet hikes, stunning views of cliff dwellings and distant snow capped mountains.

Photographs from my first visit are shared here.

Mesa Verde National Park | Travel (49/556) | Alaina Ann Photography (iPhone 4s)

Favorite Hikes + Places to Explore
  • Knife Ridge Trail - this 2 mile trail offers great views of Montezuma Valley.
  • Petroglyph Point Trail - as the name suggests, this 2.4 mile hike offers the only views of petroglyphs in the park.
  • Point Lookout Trail - another great trail for valley views. Both Montezuma Valley and Mancos Valley may be seen from this 2.2 mile hike.
  • Prater Ridge Trail - a 7.8 mile hike following a loop along the top of the ridge.
  • Spruce Canyon Trail - one of my favorites, taking you down and through Spruce Canyon over a 2.4 mile hike.

Stargazing and cross country skiing are both on my list for upcoming visits.

Would love to hear about your favorite spots from this unique and beautiful national park.

San Juan National Forest | Travel (48/556)

San Juan National Forest | Travel (48/556) | Alaina Ann Photography The San Juan National Forest is at the top of my must visit list, especially during fall. Covering over 1.8 million acres of land in southwestern Colorado, there's plenty of goodness to enjoy.

San Juan National Forest | Travel (48/556) | Alaina Ann Photography

On another note, Durango (my favorite mountain town) is located within this amazing national forest. All the more reason to stop in and stay awhile :)

San Juan National Forest | Travel (48/556) | Alaina Ann Photography

Favorite Hikes + Places to Explore
  • 14,000 Feet and Above - several mountain peaks fall into the 14'ers category. For a full list, click here.
  • Durango - my favorite mountain town :) Always worth a visit and overnight stay if you find yourself in the area. Other great towns include Telluride, Ouray and Silverton.
  • Hiking - the Dolores and Columbine Ranger Districts are my most visited areas for hiking. My list of favorites is far too long to share!
  • San Juan Skyway - SO much goodness on this 232 mile scenic byway loop. I try to drive this at least once a year.
  • South San Juan Wilderness - includes portions of the southeastern San Juan Mountain range and the Continental Divide.

What are some of your favorite spots in San Juan National Forest?

Durango, Colorado | Travel

Durango, Colorado | Travel | Alaina Ann Photography Durango, Colorado is my favorite happy place. One day this mountain town will be called home and these amazing areas will be just outside my doorstep :)

Durango, Colorado | Travel | Alaina Ann Photography

I try to make my way through Durango each year while on my around the country road trip. As you will notice from the posts below, my arrival almost always coincides with peak fall foliage.

Durango, Colorado | Travel | Alaina Ann Photography

Favorite Hikes + Places to Explore
  • U.S. Route 550 - this curvy drive from Durango to Silverton, and even Ouray, is quite spectacular. Each turn offers a new perspective of mountain goodness. And the mountain towns are small yet grand.
  • Hiking - this website is great for finding hikes in and around Durango.
  • Historic Downtown - filled with restaurants, shops and great mountain views.
  • Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad - this train ride is fun for all ages, taking you to areas only accessible by backpacking or from the windows of this train.

Durango, Colorado | Travel | Alaina Ann Photography

To take a trip down memory lane, here are links to other Durango blog posts.

Fall in Colorado Durango & Silverton Fall Photo Train Fenced Aspens Passing Train Moody Mountain iPhone Favorites Durango Fall Goodness Durango Ranch Tall Aspens

So... there are just a FEW mentions of Durango on this little website of mine!

What are you favorite hikes and places to explore in Durango, Colorado?

Tall Aspens | Photograph Story

Tall Aspens | Photograph Story | Alaina Ann Photography Oh how I love aspens during fall :)

Each year I cross my fingers hoping the stars will align, placing me in Durango, Colorado during peak fall foliage. My happiest place during my favorite season.

There's a ridge filled with aspens along U.S. Route 550 that always catches my eye. After driving around one of the many curves in the road, the ridge appears, with the aspen leaves soaking up the sunlight. The colors are always magnificent.

While heading south, I had the safe opportunity to pull over and hop out of my car to take a closer look at the aspens. I hiked a little away from the road and my car. My zoom lens was a good friend this afternoon, allowing me to get closer to the trees than my feet would allow.

I love this photograph and the feeling of peace and fresh air that fills my mind. Those yellow and green leaves, sparkling in the sunshine, keep me coming back every year :)

Flattop Mountain | Photograph Story

Flattop Mountain | Photograph Story | Alaina Ann Photography Plenty of snow remained on the ground and mountain peaks during my May visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I always enjoy seeing snow during unexpected months.

Some roads were still closed as teams hastily worked to clear snow and make necessary road repairs for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

The ranger recommended taking a hike around Bear Lake. Since the trail was still covered with snow and ice, I threw on my ice climbing boots, giving me a little more traction with each step.

Flattop Mountain was my first view as I made my way to the trail from the parking area. The contrast between the snow, green pine trees and mountain immediately grabbed my attention.

I spent a bit of time enjoying this grand view, before and after my hike. Every slippery step was worth this amazing moment in nature.

Fenced Aspens | Photograph Story

Fenced Aspens | Photograph Story | Alaina Ann Photography Fall and Durango, Colorado make me happy. I trust they always will :)

When I had the opportunity to drive to Durango to capture the freshly turned aspens, I was on cloud nine. I spent days driving throughout southwest Colorado and loved every minute of my journey.

This moment, on the side of Highway 550, was one of my favorite moments from the trip. The golden hour was in full swing, the aspens were glowing and this fence was the perfect western addition to the scene.

I parked my Jetta on the side of the road and walked toward the field with my tripod. Nearly an hour went by while I photographed the aspens, the field and surrounding area.

A few friendly people stopped in to capture the scene and a few happened to notice my Maryland license plate and wanted to chat about me being so far from home :) I have that conversation frequently while on the road.

My favorite part of this photograph is the sunlit aspens. The yellow leaves are so bright, full or life and beauty. Aspens are my favorite tree and this little view, in my favorite town, landed me in a very happy place.

If everything goes according to plan, I should be in Durango around the same time this fall. I am hoping to run into similar beautiful views.

Aspens | Photograph Story

Aspens | Photograph Story | Alaina Ann Photography Aspens make me happy. They are, without a doubt, my favorite tree. Taking in a landscape scene filled with fall aspen goodness is at the top of my happy place list :)

A few falls ago, I made my way to Durango, Colorado for a week of fall photography. I spent one full day driving up to Telluride. After grabbing a tasty lunch at one of the local cafes, I made my way to a walking trail close to Bridal Veil Falls.

The start of the trail was lined with golden aspens. I was wide-eyed and my camera was busy! I easily spent close to two hours walking back and forth on the trail, catching the light as the sun moved closer to the horizon for sunset.

I was looking up through the trees, across the trail to the mountain peaks and down on the ground, covered in fallen aspen leaves. There was SO much goodness.

After capturing ample photographs in every direction, I sat on a bench and relaxed for another thirty minutes or so. Cheerful hikers and bicyclists passed by, waving and stopping to chat about the lovely fall scene.

My afternoon with the aspens was one of my favorite moments from the trip. I love the combination of peace and natural beauty.

Road to Autumn | Photograph Story

Road to Autumn | Photograph Story | Alaina Ann Photography I absolutely love fall. I anticipate the cool air, changing leaves and hitting the road to explore each and every year. Fall is most certainly my happy time of the year :)

While living in Arizona, I drove north to stay in Durango, Colorado during peak fall foliage. I drove north, south, east and west from Durango to take in as many epic mountainous fall views as possible! I was on the road constantly, popping in and out of my Jetta every time I saw something inspiring and beautiful (this happened frequently)!

The photograph above, Road to Autumn, was a view I happened to catch in my rear-view mirror while driving into Telluride. I was driving on CO-145 N, from Dolores. After visiting Telluride, my plan was to continue heading north, through Ridgway, before heading south to Durango. I was never going to approach this view head on during my travels and could have easily missed it entirely.

I noticed the blanket of aspens while driving through the mountains and even stopped prior to the turn in the road to photograph another grand view. Once back in my car, I noticed the snow capped mountain peaks in my rear-view mirror. As I reached the top of the hill, I could see the entire scene unfolding and immediately pulled off the road!

I jumped out of my Jetta with a dropped jaw :) This view was unreal. So much goodness.

A constant reminder in the back of my mind while out exploring is to look behind me. There have been many occasions when an amazing surprise was waiting for me after doing a 180* turn.

This is still one of my favorite surprises :)

Rocky Mountain National Park | Photograph Story

Rocky Mountain National Park | Alaina Ann Photography Rocky Mountain National Park was conveniently on my way to Maryland, while driving from Arizona. I honestly spent little time researching the park and planned to see what I could see during my day in the area. Even though it was late May, the higher elevations were still covered in snow, with crews working hard to uncover many of the roads in time for Memorial Day weekend, days after my departure.

While preparing to leave the park and head north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, I noticed a large herd of elk in a meadow. I had time and curiosity, so I turned around and drove toward the flowing river and meadow to see if there was a pullout for parking the Jetta. Naturally, there was :)

I hopped out of my car and began to walk along the river, passing two men fly fishing along the way. I kept my distance from the elk and captured a few fun photographs as they lounged around and snacked on the grass.

And then I turned around. This was my view! I knew I was surrounded by mountains and trusted a lovely view awaited me once I began to head back to my car. It had been raining off and on throughout the day, the clouds rolled in and out and the mountains received fresh snow with each pass.

Everything was quiet, peaceful and inviting for a moment to pause. And so I did, taking a seat along this riverbed to enjoy the view and the journey I was on. This was another defining moment during my trip, similar to my sand dune footprints moment from the previous day. I was surrounded by goodness and peace :)

Sand Dune Footprints | Photograph Story

Sand Dune Footprints | Photograph Story | Alaina Ann Photography This photograph makes me happy :) Every time I look at my footprints coming down the sand dune, I am filled with the same sense of accomplishment, excitement and peace I felt the day I visited and hiked in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Six weeks prior to leaving Arizona for Maryland, I had an exercise inhibiting surgery. When I arrived at the sand dunes, I knew I wanted to hike as much as I felt able and possible. I woke up feeling great that morning and the weather was perfect. There were also very few people at the park and on the sand dunes. One school bus of students from Gunnison rolled in, but they mostly stayed on the lower dunes (sledding/skiing down) or playing in the water.

There was an overall serene and peaceful feeling to the park that day. Perhaps this quiet stillness is common, or maybe my timing was just right :)

When I started my hike, I knew it would require some work given my little legs and the deep sand. I laughed at myself, a lot, during this hike. I laughed because of how far I sunk into the sand with each step. I laughed over the amount of clothing I was tearing off my body in the first few hundred feet of the hike. I laughed after being mistaken for one of the high school kids by two older men hiking for their fourth day. And my most favorite laugh was when I reached the top, plopped down in the sand and ate an entire bag of chocolate chip cookies while chugging water :) I had an amazing time!

The views on the way up, while sitting at the top and on the way down were breathtaking. Every direction I looked offered a spectacular scene to take in. I honestly can not wait to go back and hike these sand dunes again and again.

What I love most about the Sand Dune Footprints photograph is the visible path I took coming down from the top of the dunes, and the fact that my footprints are the only tracks to be seen. When I was hiking down, I purposely chose a clean path. I wanted to hike out on smooth sand, untouched for days, possibly longer.

I mostly travel alone and rarely capture photographs of myself in the amazing places I visit. To me, this photograph is more special than my iPhone selfie sitting at the top of the dunes. This captures the evidence of the path I chose and an amazing memory I love to look back on.

Durango Ranch | Photograph Story

Durango Ranch | Photograph Story | Alaina Ann Photography One of my goals is to own land and a cozy cabin in Durango, Colorado. My fingers are crossed that this will become a reality in about ten years :)

During my fall foliage trip to Colorado, I stayed in Durango, traveling north and west from there each day. I drove by this ranch three times during dark hours, knowing I was missing out on a spectacular scene. This little ranch looks breathtaking during the spring, summer and winter months; I knew it would blow me away with yellow and green aspens during their peak season.

During my full day in Durango, I made my way south on 550 toward this ranch. While finding a safe place to pull off the road, I was giddy with excitement! Between the ranch, trees and reflection in the water, I was in fall heaven! There were so many photographic possibilities :)

I hopped out of my car, grabbed my tripod, and set up on the side of the road. I think I spent nearly two hours there, watching the clouds roll in and out, changing the light just enough to keep shooting more.

While capturing photographs, an older man and his wife pulled up behind my car and jumped out, excitedly asking where in Maryland I was from! They recognized my license plate and had to pull over :) As it turns out, they were from Gaithersburg, only about 10 miles from where I grew up. Talk about a small world!

They now live in Cortez, Colorado after following a similar dream to head out west, buy some land and build a home among the amazing Colorado views.

One day this lovely view, and many others, will be just down the road from my home. I absolutely can not wait :)

Passing Train | Photograph Story

Passing Train | Alaina Ann Photography In 2012, I traveled to my favorite part of the country for peak fall foliage. Durango, Colorado is, without question, my happy place. Once of my favorite days during this particular visit was taking the fall photo train ride from Durango to Silverton. The views were breathtaking the entire trip up and back!

Stopping on our way to Silverton and pulling off the track, allowing the next train to pass, provided an excellent opportunity to photograph two steam engine trains, side-by-side. The train on the left is parked, waiting for the photographers to finish capturing their photographs. The train on the right is filled with people enjoying a beautiful fall day in the San Juan Mountains!

Admittedly, I was a bit nervous to sit on the ground, so close to a passing train. The conductor of my train made sure we were far enough away from the passing train to avoid a close call. That said, we were still close enough to feel the nice breeze (and movement of the ground beneath us!) as the train cruised on by! You may notice the conductor of the passing train keeping an eye on us :)

The series of photographs leading up to this capture are some of my favorite images. I loved having the opportunity to get off the train and capture perspectives that are otherwise unavailable on the standard train rides. This trip officially made me fall in love with photographing trains. I am still looking for my next opportunity!